Remembering NFL Films' Founder Ed Sabol

A look back at the life of Sabol through Charlie Rose's 2004 joint interview with father and son, Ed and Steve Sabol, on 60 Minutes

NFL Films' founder Ed Sabol died this week at the age of 98.

Eleven years ago, Charlie Rose met the man who revolutionized sports broadcasting and got amazing access to the NFL Films archives. 60 Minutes Overtime takes a look back at Rose's 2004 report to remember Sabol and his life's work.


The following is a script of "NFL Films Inc." which aired on January 28, 2004. Charlie Rose is the correspondent.

It's an only-in-America story, the story of a father and son, Ed and Steve Sabol. They used a home movie camera to build an empire, and along the way, they created a company called NFL Films, Inc. It is now owned by the National Football League. Each year, the company shoots more film than all the Hollywood Studios combined. But it's the Sabols' passion for the game, and their love for each other, that has turned the controlled anarchy of football into money and art.

Their work is the gold standard of sports photography. Film highlights and features of pro-football, shot each game, each week of each season and seen across the country and in many parts of the world. And it all began with a humble dream.

Ed Sabol: One of the networks was starting to do a little show on pro-football, and I thought that would be the epitome. That's the greatest. Do something about pro-football with movies.

Steve Sabol: Dad wanted to show the game the way Hollywood portrayed fiction. And that is with a dramatic flair.

Ed Sabol: Didn't know how it worked. He was not mechanically inclined. We had to show him where the shutter release button was. But when he looked through the viewfinder, he could compose very well.

Steve Sabol: He's not only my father, he's my best friend. He was best man at my wedding. He's the funniest person I've ever known.

Charlie Rose: You watch games all weekend?

Ed Sabol: Yeah. Not every game, no. My attention span is much less. You know, Charlie, I'm 87 years old.

Charlie Rose: That's no excuse.

Ed Sabol: I get a little tired.

But once upon a time, Ed Sabol wasn't too tired to set a world swimming record or to serve his country in World War II. But he found himself selling topcoats at his father-in-law's factory, and "Big Ed," as he's known, wasn't happy.

Ed Sabol: In fact, I used to tell my wife all the time it was like going to the dentist every morning.

Charlie Rose: How much money were you making?

Ed Sabol: I was doing quite well. I was doing very well. And it wasn't the money, it was the fact that I was not happy doing what I was doing. And my hobbies all my life were sports and photography. And I said, 'If I ever get another job, or go into a business, it's going to do -- be something that I like, that I want to get up in the morning and enjoy it.'

The epiphany came when Ed Sabol got hold of a 16-millimeter movie camera.

Steve Sabol: And everything I did... my first pony ride, my first haircut, there was my dad with that camera in front of him. It was just shoulders and a camera. I never saw his head. But everything that I...

Ed Sabol: I shot everything that moves, Charles. I have more movies of my wife getting in and out of an automobile than you can believe.

Charlie Rose: And birthdays everywhere.

Ed Sabol: Out and in of the automobile was my favorite.

Actually his favorite was filming his son Steve's football games, and he was very good at it.

Steve Sabol: After the games were played, dad would get the film processed, and then we -- the coaches would come back to our house. And here I was in fourth grade, and they'd sit around and my mom would serve pretzels and apple cider. And they would watch the films of this fourth grade football team playing games.

Ed Sabol: The 90-pound team or the...

Steve Sabol: It was 70 pounds.

Ed Sabol: Seventy pounds.

By 1962, big Ed had his own little film company, Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, and he approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle with a $3,000 bid for the rights to film the league's championship game.

Charlie Rose: And you wrote a check to double whatever the previous...

Ed Sabol: Now you got it.

Charlie Rose: ...price had bet.

Ed Sabol: Right, because I wanted it badly. I had to have it, and wasn't going to let a thousand or $2,000 stand in the way.

He got it, but he got more than he bargained for. The game in New York between the Packers and Giants was played on one of the coldest days of the year.

Ed Sabol: The film started breaking, you know? It was getting so brittle.

Steve Sabol: We had cameramen with frostbite then, and dad was so nervous he had diarrhea. So he didn't see much of the game.

Ed Sabol: Yeah, I spent more time in the men's room than I did on the sideline.

Steve Sabol: Yeah, he was so...

Charlie Rose: Because you were nervous about making this a success.

Ed Sabol: Yeah, because...

Charlie Rose: This was your shot.

Ed Sabol: Yeah, I couldn't believe to get such a terrible break on a clear day and have it freezing.

Despite all the mishaps and hardships, the league was so pleased with the film that it decided to buy Big Ed's little company. But there was a catch.

Charlie Rose: Ed, at some point, they did not only want you to do the championship game, they want you to produce films for every team in the league.

Ed Sabol: Absolutely.

Charlie Rose: 'This is what we expect from you, Mr. Sabol.'

Ed Sabol: That was very important. That was number one. You must supply each team with a half-hour film of their season highlights. And we got to get them quickly.

Charlie Rose: Did you have the manpower to do that at that time?

Ed Sabol: No.

Charlie Rose: So what did you do?

Ed Sabol: I just said, 'I've got to go out and get guys.' We went out and hired cameramen in each city and school teachers or gym teachers who used to shoot coaching.

Steve Sabol: We had foot doctors.

Ed Sabol: Doctors, guys who it was their hobby.

Charlie Rose: Guys like you.

Ed Sabol: Me, yeah. I had to get it done.

And he did, but some of the early results were less than artistic.

Ed Sabol: And those visual things that when I look at that screen and it was fuzzy or it was too light or overexposed, and I couldn't stand it. It used to make my stomach turn.

But gradually, the style of NFL Films evolved. Rule number one: Shoot film and only film. Even though it costs much more than videotape, to connoisseurs, it is the difference between an oil painting and a print.

Steve Sabol: We're storytellers and we're romanticists. If "Lord of the Rings" had been shot on videotape, it wouldn't have the same sense of wonder, of majesty, of magic about it. We're historians, we're storytellers, we're mythmakers. We'll always stay on film.

Rule number two: Have at least one camera shoot the action entirely in slow motion, even though it consumes more film and costs more money. It turned brutality into ballet.

Ed Sabol: The whole game, every play, we're going to shoot in slow motion. 'Oh, hey. You can't do that. It's going to cost you a thou.' So, I said, 'I don't care what it costs. If we get two great plays that they never saw before, it'll open their eyes.' And that's exactly what happened.

Steve Sabol: Dad always said, 'Let the film run like water. Let the film run like water.' That was one of his sayings, and he always used to...

Ed Sabol: You remember the quality long after you forget the price of anything. And the quality has got to be first.

Rule number three: Don't ignore the sound. They put microphones on coaches and players, many of whom seem to speak English as a second language. Rule number four: Use the voice of God to narrate the films, which they did when they hired a local newsman named John Facenda.

Ed Sabol: Oh, he could make, what, the laundry list sound like the Constitution of the United States.

Steve Sabol: Dad always had the great saying about Facenda. He said that if the Last Supper ever had an after-dinner speaker, it would be John Facenda. He was the Walter Cronkite of Philadelphia. I remember writing the first script that Facenda ever read. And the first line was: It starts with a whistle.

John Facenda: And ends with a gun. Sixty minutes of close-in action from kickoff to touchdown. This is pro football. The sport of our time.

And to get to the real home of the sport of our time, you get off the Turnpike just outside Philadelphia, in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It's the $45 million home of NFL Films, Inc. If you're into pro pigskin, this is hog heaven.

Charlie Rose: First thing you notice about a film vault is that the temperature is cooler.

Steve Sabol: Oh, yeah.

Charlie Rose: It's cold in here right now.

Steve Sabol: Well, this has got all the fire suppression systems, the security and everything.

Charlie Rose: If I would just pick out one of these.

Steve Sabol: Let's see.

Charlie Rose: See what we've got here: 1977.

Steve Sabol: Oh, look, 1963 title game, Bears and Giants. "Deadline To Glory."

Charlie Rose: No one has any idea how many cans are back here, do they?

Steve Sabol: Well, there's 100 million feet of film.

Charlie Rose: A hundred million feet of film?

Steve Sabol: You could go up there, that's 1934. This is really the history of the sport all in 16-millimeter film.

And that history includes moments that have their own nicknames: "The Immaculate Reception," "The Holy Roller," and the one known simply as "The Catch."

Steve Sabol: The only other human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-millimeter film than the National Football League is World War II.

In this place, even the cafeteria food trays serve up football. In Sabol's game room, there is every manner of football frivolity, including a Vince Lombardi photo, which he signed.

Steve Sabol: And this is, "To Steve: A schmuck if I ever saw one. Vince."

But it is not all fun and games. It is in these state-of-the-art suites that the company provides programming for the more than 150 football shows around the nation and around the world. As a private company, NFL Films won't say how much money they make each year. They also won't tell you about the darker side of the sport: the steroids, the spousal abuse, the excessive violence of the sport. They come to praise pro football, not to bury it.

Ed Sabol: That's being done by others. Why should we join that group? There's newspapers and tabloids and television. They're doing that. So I don't contribute -- I don't want to contribute and just be a has-been and follow along. I don't see that. The game is beautiful, and I love it, and that's the way I want to portray it.

And on this night in Tampa Bay for a game between the Bucs and the Colts, Steve Sabol has assembled his all-star cast. Shooting on the ground, cameraman and vice president, Steve Andrich.

Steve Andrich: We move a lot. That's the thing. We try to make two cameras look like 10.

Charlie Rose: What's your internal instructions for yourself tonight?

Steve Andrich: Get good stuff.

Up on top is 20-year veteran Hank McElwee.

Charlie Rose: You've only missed two games.

Hank McElwee: Two games, yeah.

Charlie Rose: Your mother-in-law was sick.

Hank McElwee: My mother-in-law passed away, and then my mother passed away.

Charlie Rose: And that's it?

Hank McElwee: That's it. It's a love. You got to love it.

Charlie Rose: You've never had this thought, though: You're the best, period.

Hank McElwee: There's one other guy, Donnie Marks, who's pretty good, too.

Donnie Marks, considered the Rolls-Royce of cameramen, shooting a game in Dallas. His passion for his work is an echo of the company Big Ed Sabol created more than 40 years ago.

Donnie Marks: I think football is important just for the fact that it's built-in as genetically to want to watch competition and to root for the underdog or for the hero. Every play is a little story, and, hopefully, it's a story that somebody can recognize when they see it on the screen. That's what keeps it fun, that's what keeps it exciting. It's the games; it's the individual play.

Steve Sabol: Dad always used to say that, 'Tell me a fact and I'll learn, tell me a truth and I'll believe, but tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.'

Ed Sabol: That's pretty good. I'm glad I said that.

Steve Sabol: Yeah.